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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Three days, three books, three reviews

On my desk this morning are three books I've read since Monday. I'm not sure to what I should attribute my sudden surge in reading. I've learned not to question it and just run with it when it strikes. I guess with UPS dropping off upcoming titles, some of them proved too irresistible not to dive into.

"Sister Wendy on Prayer," by Sister Wendy Beckett
Harmony Books (November 6, 2007), 144 pages

If you only know of Sister Wendy Beckett from her PBS/BBC series on art, you should get to know her through this book. Writing about prayer is so difficult because it is so individual. She begins by letting readers know just what a struggle it was to write this book.

But her struggle works, particularly near the end and she finds her sea legs and writes simply and logically about prayer.

I'll admit that my interest in reading this slim volume is personal indeed. I've always felt a failure at prayer. I'm not one to sit still for an hour and allow myself to be with God. I'm always trying to multi-task my way through.

Sister Wendy writes, "It is not difficult to intellectualize about prayer. Like love, beauty and motherhood, it quickly sets our eloquence aflow. It is not difficult, but it is perfectly futile." She goes further to suggest that it can even be harmful.


Because writing, thinking, talking, reading and longing for prayer keeps us from actually praying. She challenges us to discover what it is we really want from prayer. Because the fundamental reason for prayer—and what makes it so simple—is that we want to be possessed by God.

"Knock and it shall be opened to you." God doesn't want to trick us so prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about.

Throughout her book, Sister Wendy refers to a selection of paintings that for her speak of prayer. Those paintings are in the book and she describes, in her wonderfully accessible way, how those paintings describe various aspects of prayer.

Her writing is challenging in places. Do we make room for prayer in our lives? Is it a priority? Or is it something we try to fit in while doing other things (as it has traditionally been for me). But she also explains its utter simplicity. Here are a few of my favorites:

On peace:
"All too often people say, 'I was too sick to pray' or 'I was too worried to pray.' Rather we should say, 'My prayer today is of a sick and worried person.' It is you God wants to take to Himself in prayer, and if that is a you with shingles or a you with marriage problems, He is compassionate toward His child, but does not demand that the reality of life be discarded. You cannot step out of your real life with all its tensions into 'a peace.' God does not want you to. It would be a state of unreality."
On penance:
"One sometimes gets the impression that these saints were canonized because of their physical penances. Forget about love and prayer: one can deduce these, the reasoning goes, from the extremes to which they brought their bodies. Fast until you faint? You must love God. Go without sleep? Ah, what devotion! Today we are more dubious about these penitential extravaganzas. We still love them; we are deeply impressed by them. They still seem to bear their own credentials blazing bright on their foreheads, yet we have perhaps come to realize the element here of the extraordinary, the UFO, that essentially impresses us, not because it comes from God, but because it is bizarre, a seemingly spiritual version of the poltergeist. True faith is something very much deeper."
On holiness:
"To be perfect is to be complete. God is perfect in that He is completely the Godhead. There is one God and He is completely Himself. But there is not one humanity. We are all human in different ways. And, for us, perfection—to me rather an off-putting noun—can mean only becoming completely what we are meant to be. Each of us is called to an individual fulfillment that only God understands."
But enough "talk" about prayer.

"Black Olives," by Martha Tod Dudman
Simon & Schuster (February 5, 2008), 192 pages

If I remember correctly, this was one of those books I checked off on my reviewer checklist. I'm not usually one to review fiction, but the theme of middle-aged love appealed to me.

"Black Olives" is a fast read, but it's emotional and unpleasant in places. It reads more like a short story than a novel in that it involves one evening in time, albeit with glances back at a 10-year relationship.

Nine months after their painful breakup, Victoria spots her ex-boyfriend while looking at the olive bar of the Maine grocery store where they live. She's thrown into a panic because she wanted to see him again when SHE was ready. David, the boyfriend, doesn't see her because he's too busy getting his coffee beans.

In an unlikely (though who am I to say?) turn of events, she compulsively goes to his unlocked car in the parking lot and climbs into the back seat under his sweaters, rain gear and other stuff piled on the floor. She's inhaling the smell of him, when the actual him gets into the car.

She's stuck and rides with him to several more spots before he eventually arrives at his home. She gets out of the car and stays in the garage until he leaves again, which is when she walks through his home.

Throughout this episode she is visiting the places and spaces of their relationship. She's not an altogether appealing person, but neither is he. They are both divorced with children from previous marriages. At the point of the story they are also both in their 50s, he with a grandchild and she with two grown children.

He wants to marry her and she doesn't want to be tied down. They maintain separate homes and lives yet still share a decade together. There's, I suppose, is a modern relationship, but he wants more.

Most of the novel is an interior monologue and she replays the scenes of their life together. Maybe she's trying to figure out at what point things went south. And maybe she's trying to identify where she could have responded differently. There are times when the tone is downright annoying. She becomes that friend you dread who goes on and on about sour relationship. But like a train wreck, you read on because truly this could be any of us. While Victoria shows us a secure businesswoman and mother, she becomes insecure in her love life, questioning everything including whether or not she should have bought sexier panties.

That insecurity comes to her at the moment of the breakup, when she begins questioning him and herself about events in their relationship.
"And then I thought—well, if she just has brown hair, and she doesn't even have big breasts, then what's the point of it? What could she have? What could it be that would make that particular vagina, that pair of eyes, that set of lips, any better/different/sexier than the ones I've got?
"Does she know about me?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. But what would he have told her? Not the dear things. Not the big things. He wouldn't have told her about the time, after my operation, when I lay in the hospital bed in Bangor and he sat there all day long with his laptop and book, just being there in the room with me so that, whenever I rolled out of the fog of my opiated stupor, he was right there, with his familiar shirt on, with his laptop, sitting in the hospital chair.

You're still here, I said. I didn't know what time it was. Time had gotten all blurry and strange and stretched out by the drugs and the pain in between the drugs.

Of course, he told me, looking up. Where else would I be? he asked me. And I knew he would always be there, right there in the room with me."
It's a revelation to her that she has become what she dreaded in others. And only after that point of self-discovery can she truly begin to move on with her life.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Riverhead Books (May 2007), 367 pages

It's not the writing, though it is simple and straightforward, it's the story that moved me quickly through "A Thousand Splendid Suns." While the story happens largely in my lifetime, it seems almost from another century. The differences between my years and those of Mariam and Laila are incomparable.

That the story takes place in Afghanistan—a place where my earliest knowledge of its existence was sitting in Mr. Hatfield's sixth-grade classroom at Brantner Elementary in Cincinnati, watching as Soviet tanks invaded—is so central to the events of today and yet still so foreign makes it even more compelling.

It's a breezy read interrupted with some disturbing violence. In his first novel, "The Kite Runner," Hosseini presented some coincidences, which were frankly too hard to imagine ever happening. That's storytelling laziness. It's my primary problem with authors like Dan Brown, who drive you through a fast-paced interesting narrative only to neatly wrap up the details with a mix of uninspired and unrealistic coincidences.

There's a little of that here, but it's not nearly so offensive. In the end, this story contains more of the hope—for women and for a country—than Hossein's first book. A good story.


Michelle O'Neil said...

The whole getting into the backseat and being trapped there sounds very funny. And crazy, but intriguing.

Wendy Hoke said...

It's a little crazy for sure, but then again...

Cleveland Carole Cohen 3C said...

The zen-like truth about just being in the moment came to mind when I read your review of Sister Wendy's book. I never dreamed I would ever be ordering a book written by a nun, but this sounds exceptional. And I so enjoyed meeting you today, Wendy.